One of the questions we often hear is “How many restaurants can Sarasota possibly support?”
A: One look round will confirm that, with downtown booming and going vertical with new hotels, condos, and rentals, and the surrounding area sprouting new home construction and a steady stream of incoming transplants and tourists, well the short answer is – more.
Question #2: Isn’t there a disproportionate number of Italian restaurants?
A: Umm, no. Out of about 800,000 restaurants in the U.S., over 100,00 are serving Italian cuisine. What does all this tell us?
Firstly that the classic, familiar flavors using essential ingredients in unending combinations will never get old. Delicious is delicious in any language, no?
So it should come as no surprise that the recently opened Luna Rossa Osteria Italiano on Siesta Drive has already garnered a strong fan base. The room is light, bright, and intimate while being lively all at once.
The owner, Di Costanzo Tiziana, and Chef Francesco Di Massa have been serving fabulous Italian food for years in the Gulf Gate area at her other restaurant, Dolce Italia. Both hail from the tiny island of Ischia and use only traditional family recipes. You can ‘taste the love’ in their authentic flavors.
Our party of 3 was greeted by one of the more affable servers ever, Eliott, who left us wanting or waiting for nothing. Before sharing our thoughts about the food, I simply have to share one of the most awesome service experiences we’ve seen in some time. Our guest, Cynthia, asked whether Luna Rossa had any non-alcoholic beer on their menu. When she was told no, she said “That’s too bad,” and ordered water. Not five minutes later, Eliott returned with an ice cold bottle of non-alcoholic beer, pouring it into a chilled glass. Where did it come from? My guess is someone from the restaurant ran across the street to Lucky’s Market or bought the beer from a neighboring restaurant. Either way, that was a class act that impressed not only our guest but your SarasotaFoodies as well! Who DOES that?
Our shared starter was one of my all-time faves, the Bruschetta Napoletana.
This was so spot on in my book, as the fresh housemade sourdough bread, topped with chopped tomato, fresh mozzarella, basil, and fresh garlic, then drizzled with EVOO and balsamic vinegar. There are two kinds of bruschetta at Luna Rossa . . . The Bruschetta d’Ischia doesn’t have fresh garlic, so those of you on romantic dates can order that version instead! What can I say about bruschetta that hasn’t been said? All I know is crispy toasted bread topped with bright classic ingredients make this an easy starter to recommend. Three pieces, three guests. Coincidence? Probably not, but the math was simple, thank you.
The enticing main course menu was terrific, but I had my neck craning toward the ever-changing special blackboard, whereupon I chose the scratch made Cavatelli Luna Rossa pasta. Dressed in a pink tomato sauce that was deliciously melded with cream, the cavatelli pasta tossed with al dente peas, mozzarella, parmesan, and the pièce de résistance . . . guanciale. Guanciale is an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowl. It is often called Italian bacon and added a smoky note to the dish that made it irresistibly delicious. There wasn’t a morsel of the sauce left when I finished my meal.
Cynthia opted for the Snapper Caprese, which featured a snapper filet lightly dusted in flour, then flash fried before being topped with a light brush of marinara, then topped with mozzarella and basil (creating that Caprese flavor, of course!) as well as a bit of parmesan. It is then baked in the oven just long enough to melt the cheese and came with a side of bow tie pasta topped with more of the house marinara.
The Snapper Caprese was flakey and tender, and even with the marinara sauce, the coating on the fish stayed crisp. It was a nicely sized portion as well, practically spilling over the plate. We all took a bite (or two!) and declared our passports to Italy firmly stamped with this dish!
Jill seriously considered ordering the Ravioli Con Pesto, but being that Cynthia and I ordered off the specials board, Jill decided to focus on the menu and ordered the penultimate Italian comfort food, lasagna.
As it should be, Luna Rosa’s baked lasagna was hearty and tasted better than any pasta dish I could make at home. (I don’t have any Italians in my familglia!) The sauce was a perfect balance of acidic and sweet, the pasta a perfect al dente, with layers of ground beef, bechamel, mozzarella, and parmigiana. While I enjoyed my cavatelli, I did have a few envy filled moments watching Jill wrangle loop after loop of stringy cheese with pretty much every forkful of lasagna. Who doesn’t love that!
After agonizing over the menu with Eliott earlier, he came back to the table with what he called a “little surprise” . . . A complimentary order of the Ravioli Con Pesto!
“I really want you to try this dish,” Eliott explained. “It is one of my favorite dishes that Chef Di Massa makes.” Even though we were all pretty full from our bruschetta and main courses, we couldn’t resist the aroma wafting off this dish. The basil practically knocks you over the head with flavor that starts in your nose before taking over your tongue. Topped with crumbled gorgonzola and a basil cream sauce, the ravioli was filled with mozzarella and ricotta. Pretty exceptional. This should probably be part of the standard menu!
We learned some things while dining at Luna Rossa. Great service is not extinct, (Thanks again for that magically appearing non-alcoholic beer) and we don’t have to go south of Siesta Drive for great Italian food. And Jill learned you can trust your server’s suggestions at Luna Rossa. Thank goodness for that Ravioli Con Pesto! He told her she’d love it and she did!